Jun 9, 2011

VHS Memories: Pump Up the Volume

Maybe it's the fact that I'm coming up to my 30th birthday, maybe it's just that there seems to be a 90's nostalgia coming around, but I've been thinking back, recently, on my teenage years, and on my formative years as a movie fan. 1989 was the year I discovered cinema, but it was in the 90's that I became an obsessive, helped along by the tedium of a prolonged hospitalisation in 1992, when I had two liver transplants.

This being the 90's, and me being young and with little disposable income, the way I ended up seeing movies for the first time was often on VHS (most of them rented from an independent store called Upfront Video). So, in this new series I'll be looking back on, and then re-reviewing, some of the titles that made an impression on me through my VCR in those formative years. I'd welcome any of your VHS memories in the comments, whether they're about the film up for review or not, or you could drop me a line at sam@24fps.org.uk.

First up...

Pump Up The Volume
Dir: Allan Moyle

The Memories 
I was an impressionable 11 years old in 1992 when I first saw this movie (I think it was my first 15 certificate). I was a fan of Christian Slater's on the back of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and so I wanted to see this when it came out, despite its forbidden status. It was rented for me when I was in hospital after my transplants, at a time when I was decimating the local video shop at a rate of about 3 titles a day because I was in isolation and had nothing else to do besides talk to doctors and have blood tests.

I remember being rather embarrassed by the film's frequent droppings of the F Bomb but thinking that it (largely thanks to Slater's character; rebellious pirate radio DJ 'Hard Harry' / wallflower high school student Mark) was incredibly cool. There were a lot of sexual references that I didn't get, but one thing... well, two things, did make an impression. BOOBS! I do believe that Samantha Mathis' nude scene marked the first time I had ever seen breasts. I remain a fan. I also remember liking Mathis' performance, and the film's eclectic soundtrack. A few years later I took it to show to my friend Guy, and it became a big favourite of ours . I haven't seen Pump Up the Volume for about five years. How will it hold up? Let's find out...

The Movie 
I imagine that the reason I was allowed to finish watching Pump Up the Volume the first time I saw it was that a lot of it was going over my eleven year old head. Harry's references in his radio monologues to cock rings, the 'eat me beat me' lady, and homosexuality (in a call with a listener) and his simulated masturbation on air, these were all things that I just didn't understand at the time.

One of the great, and sometimes infuriating, things about cinema is that your relationship with every film you see is always in flux. Movies are never the same twice, they change as you do, and I have to say that's especially true of Pump Up the Volume and, sadly, not in a good way. When I was fifteen Hard Harry was cool, because he was rebelling against his clearly evil school and its principal (who is basically depicted as Satan) and because he was on the radio, and that seemed like a cool thing to do (still does, hence The Screening Room). Fifteen years on though, Allan Moyle's screenplay often feels facile; dealing in cheap declamatory statements and shallow characterisations, especially of the film's authority figures. I don't believe in much of what goes on at the film's Hubert Humphrey High (especially the laughable twist which has them setting up a 24 hour helpline in response to Harry's show, how the hell is that funded or staffed?) and its staff are a collection of high school movie clich├ęs from the milquetoast guidance counselor to the evil principal to the cool young English teacher.

The students scarcely fare better. Most of the film's teenagers (including Seth Green, at the start of his roughly fifteen year career playing a high schooler) get very short shrift; a couple of scenes each, and little personality. Outside of Mark (Harry) and Samantha Mathis – amateurish in her first film - as his love interest Nora the only character with a real arc is Paige; the school's star pupil who, listening to Harry, decides to blow up all her nice things in the microwave. It's a transformation we don't believe, because we don't see it from her point of view, there's no sense of the journey between Daddy's princess and BOOM! (Cheryl Pollak's performance does little to help, to be fair).

However, there are still things I like about this film, things that do work. Chief among them is Christian Slater's performance. Slater has always been a better actor than he's credited as, much more than the mini Jack Nicholson he's often dismissed as, and this is actually one of his best roles. During his extended monologues as Harry (though less so during the film opening horseplay which has him pretending to wank. Twice.) you can see why his audience listens to him, he's a voice much like theirs; a bit lost, a bit confused, often very immature, but eloquent in how he sums up what he sees around him, and passionate about denouncing it (even if he doesn't really know what else to do). Slater is forceful and charismatic in these scenes, and all the more impressive given that he's really got nothing to act against for most of the time, and it is in the film's two main radio shows (after the suicide of a listener and after a school meeting discussing Harry and his influence respectively) that Moyle's dialogue is at its best and feels the least like it is smacking you around the face with its message. As with Avatar's 'trees good, war bad' message it's not so much that I'm not on board with Moyle's 'free speech is awesome' moral as it is that he sometimes spoonfeeds us that message with such force that we choke on it.

The other great thing here is the film's soundtrack. From Pixies' awesome UK Surf mix of Wave of Mutilation to the repeated use of Everybody Knows (which introduced both me and Guy to Leonard Cohen) and from an ultra rare Beastie Boys track to Cowboy Junkies, the film is packed with an original and eclectic mix of music which feels much less dated than the rest of the fashions on display here (okay, Ice T's Girls LGBNAF notwithstanding). Moyle uses the music well, never letting it speak for the film or instruct us how to feel, rather its part of the fabric of the society his teenage characters create for themselves; perhaps the film's most realistic touch.

Overall, Pump Up the Volume is probably a film best watched when you're fifteen and angry with your school, your dad and the girl who just refused to go out with you, but it still has more ideas than you're likely to find in any three recent American teen movies, even if it sometimes articulates them with a 2x4. It's deeply flawed, and would work better if it were more clearly satirical, but it remains interesting if only for Slater's charismatic performance.

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